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First look: Samsung's Galaxy Buds shed features to take on AirPods

Samsung's dropping the fitness features, but some smarts remain
Samsung Galaxy Buds first look
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The hearables industry is in a lull and Apple's AirPods are hoarding the spoils – time for Samsung to bring the fight with its new Galaxy Buds.

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The Galaxy Buds, launched amidst a gaggle of devices at Samsung’s big Unpacked event, are the company’s attempt at earbuds that are easy to use, sound great, and offer a few smart features along the way. Having taken them out for an early test drive, I’m not sure Samsung has ticked all those boxes, but I do think the Galaxy Buds have something to offer.

Hands on: Samsung Galaxy Active review

They certainly nix a few problems of the IconX, Samsung’s previous smart earbuds. And with the help of Harman sub-brand AKG – which Samsung acquired in 2017 – it’s gone under the hood and tuned up the sound quality. It’s also improved the smart filter feature, and added a bit more battery to the charging case.

Samsung Galaxy Buds: Design

First look: Samsung Galaxy Buds slim down to take on the AirPods

While Samsung claims the Galaxy Buds are 30% smaller than the IconX, you’d be forgiven for hardly noticing. Overall they look pretty similar, though they do feel a little more compact when you pick them up. You’ve got a choice of eartips and wingtips that come in the box, but those wingtips stay a little more flush to the side of the earbuds.

Each earbud weighs just 4.9g and sits pretty comfortably in the ear; however you’ll want to spend some time finding the right combination of bud/wingtip – not just to keep these in your ears, but to ensure the Ambient sound feature works properly. More on that in a bit. It’s especially important to get the right fit if you’re going to be using these for exercise.

First look: Samsung Galaxy Buds slim down to take on the AirPods

The new earbuds come in black, white or “Canary Yellow” to match Samsung’s new range of smartphones. It’s not a huge amount of variety, but it’s a 300% increase on the AirPods.

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The sides of the Galaxy Buds are touch-sensitive, letting you pause/play music, adjust the volume, and call on Bixby (yes, guess who’s back) by tapping and swiping the earbuds. I generally find touch-sensitive controls on headphones to be a source of frustration. Thankfully, this can be turned off entirely in the app.

Samsung Galaxy Buds: Smart features

First look: Samsung Galaxy Buds slim down to take on the AirPods

Cast your mind back to 2017 and you might remember Samsung’s first IconX earbuds, which included a heart rate sensor on each earbud. Then, for last year’s edition, it ditched the heart rate and instead included an onboard “coach” and the ability to track speed and distance.

For 2019 it’s gutting its earbuds of fitness features entirely – but I think that’s a good thing. The heart rate sensor was a battery suck and the onboard coach a little useless; we’d rather Samsung not bother than do things by halves. And while those fitness features did offer a point of differentiation from the AirPods, I don’t think they helped them compete.

This time around Samsung is pitching the Galaxy Buds as less of a workout companion and more of a general day-to-day pair of headphones. There are still some smart features packed in here, the most interesting of which is “Ambient” mode, which lets you filter sounds in through the earbuds while you’re listening to music.

First look: Samsung Galaxy Buds slim down to take on the AirPods

This also featured on the IconX, but Samsung has improved this with some software and hardware tweaks. In the app you can manually turn Ambient mode on or off, but you can also choose the level of noise being allowed in using a sliding scale. There’s also a toggle that enhances the sound of voices in the ambient noise.

I’ve been playing with this feature a little, and while I like it, I’m still not decided on how good it is. It certainly highlighted the need to get the right fit, as if you have any sound leaking in already the Ambient mode becomes about as useful as an inflatable dartboard. You also won’t be able to use this feature if you’re paired with an iPhone. In fact, iOS users don’t get to do anything more with the Galaxy Buds than use them as simple Bluetooth headphones.

And yes, you’d better believe Bixby is back.

I’m going to need to spend some more time with the Ambient mode to see if it sticks, or becomes yet another feature I simply switch off. There was a moment in the office where my colleague was trying to get my attention, and because I had the audio passthrough on I was able to hear him (he usually has to flail his arms around to make me take my headphones off).

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Samsung Galaxy Buds: Sound quality

First look: Samsung Galaxy Buds slim down to take on the AirPods

Samsung made a big point of using AKG to improve the sound quality of the Galaxy Buds, but bearing in mind how small these earbuds are, they're still going to present a challenge to the best minds in audio tech.

The results so far show improvements over the IconX, but I don’t think it’s as big of a leap as some of you will be hoping for. So far the biggest disappointment has been the bass response, although you can push this up in the app’s EQ. Again, that’s only if you’re using an Android phone, which gives you access to Samsung’s Galaxy Wearable app.

Samsung Galaxy Buds: Battery life

Samsung’s given the battery life a little boost on the Galaxy Buds, claiming you can get a max of six hours when streaming music (one more hour than the IconX) and five hours of talk time. I haven’t used them long enough to test this, but I do like that Samsung is making charging a bit more efficient.

You now get 100 minutes of power with a 15-minute charge, and if you own one of Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 phones, you can use the PowerShare feature and juice up the charging case by lying it on the back of the phone.

Samsung Galaxy Buds: Initial verdict

The Galaxy Buds leave a good first impression, and I think Samsung’s decision to drop the fitness features and focus on sound and design is smart. Samsung phone users will get the most out of these earbuds, but they could be a decent Android alternative to the AirPods. We’ll be testing them in the coming days and weeks to find out.

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